The origin of Chinese martial arts dates back to the need in ancient China for self-defense, hunting methods, and military formative instruction. The education of the ancient soldiers of that civilization was critical in hand-to-hand combat and the mastering of weapons. They are presumed to have originated during the legendary Xia Dynasty over 4,000 years ago, around 2,698 B.C. when Huángdì (黃帝), the Yellow Emperor, introduced the first combat systems to his empire, having written long treatises on martial arts even before he became the leader of China when he was only a general
. One of the emperor's fiercest rivals was Chi You (蚩尤), a leader of the Nine Li tribe (九黎) and who is credited for being the creator of Jǐao Dǐ (角抵), a style predecessor of Jiǎo Lì (角力) and, later, of the modern art of Chinese wrestling Shuāi Jiāo (摔跤).
However, Chinese boxing can be reliably traced back to the Zhōu Dynasty, 1122-255 B.C., with bibliographic references in documents such as the "Annals of Spring and Autumn" (春秋) 5th century B.C., one of the oldest historical Chinese texts, traditionally attributed to Confucius, where there is talk of exhibitions of archery, fencing, and wrestling among the nobility, a melee style that integrates notions of "hard" and "soft" techniques are also mentioned. Furthermore, regardless of the war being waged according to the Confucian chivalry, the period of the Warring States became so bloody that it required the common people to become adept at fighting or self-defense tactics since that was the norm of those turbulent times.
Additionally, the combat fighting system called Jiǎo Lì (角力) is mentioned in the “Classic of Rites” (禮記), this system included techniques such as strikes, throws, joint manipulation and attacks on vital points.
Throughout the Qin Dynasty, 221–207 B.C., Jǐao Dǐ became a sports competition; however, the “Book of Han”
(漢書), 206 B.C. - 8 A.D., reports a clear distinction between unarmed and unrestricted combat called Shǒubó (手搏), for which training manuals had already been written, and sports wrestling, by then known as Jiǎo Lì (角力).
Hindu martial arts may have migrated to China in the early 5th or 6th century A.D. through the spread of Buddhism, and thus would have inspired Shaolin Kung-fu. Elements in Hindu mythology, such as the Nāga (नाग), Rākṣasa (राक्षस) and Yakṣa (यक्ष) were translated as protectors of the Dharma; these legendary beings of the Dharmic religions are popular in the Shàolínquán (少林拳), and are also featured in the movement and combat techniques of Chinese martial arts. Different styles of Kung-fu are known to contain movements identical to the Mudrā (मुद्रा) hand positions used in Hinduism and Buddhism, both from India. Similarly, some believe that the 108 pressure points in Chinese martial arts are based on Varma Kalai's (मर्म विद्य) marmam points.
In 495 A.D., a Shaolin Temple was built among the Song Mountains in Henan Province, and the first Hindu monk to preach Buddhism there was Buddhabhadra (佛陀跋陀罗), simply called Bátuó (跋陀) by the Chinese. There are historical records that the early Chinese disciples of Bátuó, Huìguāng (慧光) and Sēng Chóu (僧稠) were experts in the martial arts years before Bodhidharma's arrival, probably in disciplines like the ones mentioned above, Jiǎo Lì (角力) and/or Shǒubó (手搏), both centuries before the establishment of the monastery.
Also, the discovery of weapons caches in the monasteries of Cháng'ān (長安) during government raids in A.D. 446. suggests that monks practiced martial arts before the establishment of the Temple. After Buddhabadra, the monk Bodhidharma (菩提达摩), described as Central Asian or Hindu, and simply called Damo (达摩) by the Chinese, is believed to have arrived at the Shaolin Temple around 527 A.D. and that his Chinese disciple, Huike (慧可), was also highly trained in martial arts. It is probable, given the time and formation, that these first three Shaolin monks, Huìguāng, Sēng Chóu, and Huike, were military men before entering monastic life.
Bodhidharma is regarded by some historians as the founder of Shaolin Kung-fu and the first patriarch of Chinese Buddhism
. However, it is important to note that the idea of Bodhidharma's influence is based on the Qìgōng (气功) manual, “Yìjīn Jīng”
(易筋经), transcribed by a Taoist under the pseudonym “Purple Coagulation Man of the Way” in 1624, who claimed to have found it. But, since the Qing Dynasty, according to some writers and the scholar Ling Tinkang (1757-1809), who described the author as an "ignorant village master", the work itself is full of anachronistic errors and even includes a popular character from the Chinese fiction, Qiuran Ke (虬髯客), as a teacher among the lineage.
On the other hand, Ming General, Qī Jìguāng (戚繼光) included a description of Shàolínquán (少林拳), in his book “Jì Xiào Xīn Shū” (紀效新書) written during the 1560s and 1580s, the title can be translated as "New Treaty on Military Efficiency". When this book spread through East Asia, it had a great influence on the development of martial arts in regions like Okinawa.
Whatever the true story may be, it is a fact that the Shaolin Temple monks became famous warriors, and Shaolin Kung-fu came to be regarded as one of the first Chinese martial arts to be institutionalized. It would not be a surprise at all since the Chinese monasteries were wealthy properties that needed protection, which had to be provided by the monasteries themselves. During the following centuries, monks continued to practice martial arts as such practice became an integral element of Shaolin monastic life.
Most of the fighting styles currently practiced as traditional Chinese martial arts achieved popularity in the 20th century due to the dramatic changes that took place within Chinese society. Some of these include Bāguà Zhǎng (八卦掌), Drunken Boxing/Zuì Quán (醉拳), Eagle Claw/Yīng Zhǎo Pài (鷹爪 派), Five Animals/Wǔ Xíng (五形), Xìng Yì Quán (形意拳), Hung Ga (洪家), Monkey/Hóu-Quán (猴拳), Bái Méi (白眉), Northern Praying Mantis/Tánglángquán (螳螂拳), Southern Praying Mantis/Nán Pài Tángláng (南 派 螳螂), Fujian White Crane/Bái Hè Quán (白鶴拳), Jow Ga (周家), Wing Chun (詠 春) and Tàijí Quán (太極拳).
There is evidence that Shaolin martial arts were introduced to Japan since the 18th century, as is the case, for example, with Okinawan Shōrin-Ryū (少林流), one of Okinawa's main modern martial arts, as well as one of the older karate styles. Combining traditional fighting elements of Shuri-Te (首里手), this style was founded and named by Chōshin Chibana (知花朝信) who was an outstanding student of Ankō Itosu (糸洲安恒), who in turn was also the best student of Matsumura Sōkon (松村宗棍). It is true that the characters (少林) mean "small" and "forest" respectively and are pronounced "Shōrin" in Japanese, but they are also used in Chinese and Japanese to refer to Shaolin, while the character "Ryū" (流) means "school" or "style", in other words, it would be translated as "Shaolin School".
Another example is Shōrin-ji Kempō (少林寺拳法), a Japanese martial art considered to be a modified version of Shaolin Kung-fu, which was established in 1947 by Dōshin Sō (宗道臣), a Japanese martial artist and former military intelligence agent who lived in China for many years before and during World War II. The name Shōrin-ji Kempō is the Japanese reading of Shàolín Quánfǎ, which could be translated as "Shaolin Temple Fist Method".
As the examples mentioned above, other similarities can also be seen in centuries-old Chinese and Japanese martial arts manuals, such as the Wǔbèi Zhì, known in the karate world as Bubishi (武備志), and whose origin has ten different theories.
According to the book "Bubishi, The Karate Bible" by author Patrick McCarthy, there are four theories to explain the development of karate. The first affirms that the traditions of fighting without weapons were developed by peasants; the second, that the fighting arts of Okinawa were influenced, first of all, by the Chinese arts that were taught by the so-called "Thirty-six Families" of Chinese immigrants who settled in the town of Kume in the 14th century; the third theory relates to the 1507 arms ban ordered by King Shō Shin (尚眞), who came to power in 1477 as the third in line of the Second Shō Dynasty, which led to landowners to establish effective means to defend themselves and their properties with arts such as Tō-te and Ryūkyū Kobudō (琉球古武道) that continued to be taught in secret; the fourth theory states that the arts were developed in the first place by persons in charge of domestic security and law enforcement, who were not allowed to carry weapons after the invasion of Okinawa by the Satsuma clan of Japan in 1609, which in local history is known as “the first tragedy”, and that was possible because the prohibition of 1507 was extended until then and, being a pacifist culture, influenced by Buddhism, they were easily invaded.
Thus, it is believed very possible that the Okinawans combined the Chinese martial arts with the existing local variants to form the Tōde/Tō-te (唐手, Tuudii, Tang Hand, Chinese Hand), also called Okinawa-Te (沖縄手, Uchinaa-dii, Hand of Okinawa). Traditionally the Okinawan martial arts were generally known as Te and Tii/Dii (手) in Japanese and Okinawan, which translates as "hand". These "empty hand" styles, due to prohibitions, would have been developed in conjunction with Kobudō (古武道), which uses common household and agricultural instruments as weaponry. It is important to note that initially the Te and Kobudō were always trained together and in a complementary way.
By the 18th century, different types of Te had been developed in three different towns: Shuri, Naha, and Tomari, whose styles were called Shuri-Te (首里手, Okinawan/Uchinaaguchi: Suidii), Naha-Te (那覇手, Okinawan/Uchinaaguchi: Naafa-dii) and Tomari-Te (泊 手, Okinawan/ Uchinaaguchi: Tumai-dii), respectively. Thus, until well into the 20th century, to distinguish between the various types of Te, the word was often preceded by its area of origin; however, they all belonged to the martial arts family that were collectively defined as Tōde-jutsu (唐手術) or Tōde/Tō-te (唐手).The XIX century was a decisive period since it can be considered as the origin time of most of the schools of martial arts of Asian-Eastern origin practiced today. New approaches and ideas about martial arts were created that were different and unique from what had been taught until then, especially under the influence of growing nationalism in the region, which considered the respective traditions of martial arts to be part of the heritage of the country, therefore, they had to be polished to their purest form to be exhibited. As a result, the modern martial arts in China and Japan are for the most part the product of nationalist governments in power during the 1920s and 1930s. In many countries, local arts such as Te (手) in Okinawa and Jūjutsu (柔術) in Japan, mixed with other martial arts and evolved to produce some of the best-known martial arts in the late 19th and 20th centuries, such as karate (空手), which began to be taught systematically in Japan in the year 1926 after the Taishō (大正) era.